Accessing the Summit of Mauna Kea

The sign is at the start of the trail.

Summit Access
The sign asking for people to not hike to the true summit of Mauna Kea
Never mind that the trail to the true summit of Mauna Kea is nicely maintained and outlined in rock, the sign requests that you do not take this trail out of respect for the sacredness of the site.

How many people even pause when considering the message on the sign? The trail and the desire to stand atop the real summit of the mountain is substantial. As we pass the trail head and sign each day I usually see several people walking to or standing atop the summit.

Maunakea is historically, culturally, and environmentally significant. Help preserve our cultural and natural landscape and show your respect by not hiking beyond this point to the summit.

I have walked this short trail to the summit several times over the years, though not since the sign appeared. There are no particularly sensitive archaeological sites at the summit. This is in contrast to Lake Waiau, which is ringed with shrines and offerings, is just as sacred, and has no such sign to deter the curious from taking the trail.

Personally I am troubled by this sign. Placing such a sign could very well be counter productive. People are going to ignore it, walking right past it to the summit of Mauna Kea. It simply teaches people to ignore boundaries that could protect sensitive sites.

The summit is public land, belonging to the people of Hawaiʻi. I have trouble with the idea that it should be accessible only to a few on the pretense of religious or cultural heritage. Certainly some might view the summit with less than ideal respect for a special place, simply a pile of rock to be conquered. I suspect most see the summit as more than that, a symbol, a place to sit and think about the world.

I am not a religious person, but still, there are places where I find myself stopping and taking a moment to contemplate our world. The summit is one of these places, a focal point of culture, history, and perhaps the future.

Update Oct 4th: Several folks have commented that a sign educating people about the significance of the place, asking them to be respectful, and asking them to stay within the marked trail would be far more appropriate and productive in terms of protecting the site. I have to agree.

Update Oct 5th: I have posted a follow up article. The response to this article has been impressive, with a lot of heartfelt comments. How we view and respect true summit of Mauna Kea is obviously a subject very important to may people.

A Touch of Winter

It is not snow in the image, but rather hail covering the ground and temporarily turning the summit white.  A trough rich in moisture is passing the islands, leading to very active thunderstorms and even hail at the summit.  We completed segex today, with thunder rumbling outside the dome. The hail melted off in a few hours, pretty while it lasted…

Hail at the Summit
Hail at the Summit

What about offerings?

I walk a short distance from the road looking for a vantage point to set up a camera and note three different offerings within a minute, you can do this at any random spot with a good view along the summit road. They are everywhere, old leis pinned underneath rocks, the remains of little bags filled with shells and coral, ti leave bundles bleached nearly white by the weather.

An old offering
An old offering of shells and coral in a cloth bag left atop Mauna Kea
Out of respect I leave them alone, as does most everyone who spends time on the mountain. They are never in my way, I just note them and move on. But what can you do about these offerings when they begin to be an issue for the environment?

Previously the rate of offerings was fairly sedate, their appearance uncommon but steady. At the summit, at Lake Waiau, at out of the way ahu that few ever notice. Since the TMT controversy started the rate of offerings appearing on the mountain has multiplied tremendously.

In the lowlands, the forest, the seashores, offerings like these would quickly return to the earth from which they were created. The natural process of decay ensuring that the materials are cycled back into nature. The summit of Mauna Kea is different, the very dry environment preserving plant materials for years or decades. Other offerings include materials that do not break down so readily, shell, coral and cloth can persist for a very long time.

Is there a correct way for a cultural practitioner to remove offerings from an area? Is there someone who can be tasked to do this? Many other religions include rules for handling offerings left at shrines or altars, if only to make way for further offerings to be left. Is there no choice but to leave them in place?

A Failed Attempt at the Summit

The instruments were warming up. Liquid nitrogen exhausted, cooling interrupted by loss of power, the cryogenic dewars had begun to warm. Recovering instruments takes many days of vacuum pumps and re-cooling to restore function if cooling has been loss. Other problems caused by the storm and power outages plagued the summit, some systems not responding to remote queries.

Keck Under Ice
Keck Observatory covered in heavy ice
On Friday, the crew had abandoned early in the day in the face of deteriorating weather conditions. With the storm raging, no one had made it to the summit on Saturday. We all watched as remote weather instruments reported sustained winds of over 100mph and gusts as high as 134mph. With the wind came freezing fog, a thick coating of ice forming on every surface. The snowplow crews did not even try Saturday, it was just too dangerous.

Sunday offered at least a hope of making it to the summit. The storm had abated and beautiful sunny skies appeared over the summit. We readied for an attempt at the summit of Mauna Kea. As the engineer on call I would join the support techs at the summit. Maybe we could salvage something from the chaos.

Continue reading “A Failed Attempt at the Summit”

Blizzard Watch? In Hawaii?

National Weather Service watch map for 22Dec2014.
Yes, it can happen… The local NWS office has issued a blizzard watch for the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

It will be interesting to see just how much snow we do get. The Mauna Kea Weather Center is predicting a possible six inches. I do not plan on being on the summit until Friday. A white Christmas?

The List

I usually have a list of things that need done on the summit. Mostly manini things, stuff that takes a few minutes, or maybe an hour. Not enough to justify a day on the summit, this stuff can usually wait for a week or two, until I find time. When a more serious issue takes me to the summit, something that must be done, it may take an hour, or half a day. When the main thing is done I always have the list to fill in the remainder of the day.

Summit To Do List
The list of things to do on the summit.
There were three things on the list, one that had to get done. No problem, I will be on the summit tomorrow. A phone call added another item to the list. A co-worker stopping by my desk with a favor to ask… One more item added. When the end of the day was finally upon me, the list had grown to ten items. It usually works that way.

A small yellow-lined piece of paper pulled from a pad, a scrap that would rule my day on the summit. I slip the list into my left breast pocket beside a black ball-point pen.

Attach a data logger to the K2 shutter drive controllers and move the top shutters. The data looks… Ummm… interesting. That will wait for another day to analyse. The shutters have been faulting out a bit lately, there is something wrong with the VFD drives, but I am not sure what. Hopefully the answer is in the data. Much of the morning is consumed with getting the test done.

Align the WYKO interferometer under the AO bench… No problem, takes five minutes… After I gown up to enter the AO enclosure. I can replace the wave front camera controller while I am in there, just swapping the unit with the controller from the development lab at headquarters. Alignment complete, nice fringes on the video monitor… Sam will be happy with that.

Time for lunch and a game of cribbage, a busy day makes this break all that much more enjoyable, It is a fun game, even if we do lose. We do not keep score, we play for fun and bragging rights for the day. All is forgotten a day later, with years of experience the skill level is pretty even and everyone takes a turn winning or losing.

A tour at 1pm, some family friends from Portland getting a tour of the telescope, always fun. A meeting at 3pm… I forget what for now… It must have been terribly important. The day was just a mite hectic, hurrying from task to task. Slowly the list dwindled as I cross off items.

As we headed down the mountain, I pulled the now well tattered list from my pocket. Not complete, a couple items will wait for another day. But still… A sense of satisfaction, of accomplishment. None of these tasks were of major importance, none would stop the telescope from going on-sky that night, just the routine minutiae of keeping the telescopes operating.

Working Late Again

When most folks work late at the office it is a boring evening at a desk staring at a computer. I may have stared at a computer a bit, but it was hardly a boring evening.

CloudCam Image
A focusing test shot from the Keck CloudCam
The task that had me staying late was to focus the new cloud camera. To accomplish this task I needed a dark sky and stars. The plan is the same as I have used before, work the day and then stay into the evening.

Waiting for darkness had it’s advantages, an opportunity to do a little photography. In addition to the usual tool bag and lunch I took my camera gear with me.

With Sniffen on the roof while I watched the frames on the computer, I called the corrections up to him on the radio. It is tricky work to focus a fast lens, made worse by the need to do it remotely. We had to wait for each 30 second exposure, painfully slow. I hesitated to ask Sniffen to sit much longer out in the cold, but he was game and ready to assist. His tiny adjustments were deftly made, I watched as the lens moved through focus.

VLBA & Milky Way
The summer Milky Way soars over the VLBA antenna atop Mauna Kea
The focus is not as good as I would like to see, I suspect that the Sigma 18mm f/1.8 lens leaves a little to be desired when used wide open. Perhaps one of the Rokinon lenses would work better. Or maybe I just need to step the lens down a stop or two.

After leaving Keck I took my time wandering down the mountain. I stopped at IRTF for a set of panorama shots. One of the first things I noted was the lack of airglow. Last time I shot from the summit the airglow was intense. Despite using the same camera and lens, with the same settings, the bright red glow was missing. Only a pale green near the horizon to be seen in the shots.

On a whim, I drove out to the VLBA antenna for a set of shots. This radio telescope was something different than the usual telescope shots I take. I walked around the dish until I could position the summer Milky Way beside the antenna. As the VLBA is a radio telescope there was no issue in using a little light from my flashlight to paint the dish and illuminate it for the photo.

I arrived home just before midnight, tired from a full day on the summit. The photos will wait for another day for processing.

Postcard from the Summit – From the Top

The view from the top of the dome is dramatic. It has been a couple years since I had cause to climb to the top of the dome. In one week I ended up going top the top twice for different reasons. The ladders, stairways and full climbing gear do not prevent me from taking the full size DSLR…

From the Top
The view from the top of the Keck 1 dome